New York Bounces Back

Wall Street’s rapid recovery from the financial meltdown, at least measured by profits, may have turned Goldman Sachs into Public Enemy No. 1, but it has also helped bring about a strong rebound in giving in America’s capital city of philanthropy. This much was clear from two high-profile charity events last week, both of which drew bumper crowds.

On Monday May 10th the hedge-fundie-run Robin Hood Foundation raised a record $88m at its annual jamboree. The event, which featured performances by Sting, lots of jokes about older cougar women preying on younger men, and a secret giving contest between different parts of the room, improved significantly on last year’s $72.7m. True, the 3,600 wealthy people in the room could afford to give substantially more – but it is good to see that this pioneering philanthrocapitalistic event is back on track. If only the same could be said of its London counterpart, held by ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), which despite the presence of Queen Rania of Jordan raised only $20.5m at its gala on May 14th, well down on its 2007 record of $53m.

The second event, on Thursday May 13th, was a “Meet the Finalists” session hosted by Echoing Green, one of the pioneers of venture philanthropy through its very-early-stage financing of social entrepreneurs. Since it was founded in 1987 by the senior leadership of private-equity firm General Atlantic, it has invested around $28m in seed grants to some 471 social entrepreneurs.

In contrast to the Robin Hood event, Echoing Green’s was a working meeting, finallists being considered for seed grants this year getting 90 seconds to practise their pitch before a packed audience of potential donors. All were impressive – including Anna Elliot of Bamyan Media, which makes reality TV shows in countries such as Afghanistan to teach about social entrepreneurship; Ashni Mohnot of Enzi, which is pioneering new models for lending to poor students from developing countries to get educated in America; Scott Warren of Generation Citizen, which is trying to empower political activism among young Americans; and Parag Gupta of Waste Ventures, which is trying to organise impoverished waste pickers into profitable enterprises whilst reducing greenhouse gases at the same time.

What was striking about the Echoing Green event was the absence of any of the crisis mentality that has been so ubiquitous in the past couple of years in New York, even in the philanthropic world. Business as usual is not what we need on Wall Street but when it comes to giving – especially the group of young people with great ideas competing for the funding they need to start to change the world – it’s good to see New York bouncing back.